Thursday, September 18, 2014

Twittering with Mark Rosewater About Counters

Looking over the fully spoiled card list for Khans of Tarkir—which I'm quite excited about and supremely bummed Life is preventing me from attending the prerelease for—cards like Rite of the Serpent hit a bell in my head that there's been a +1/+1 counter theme (or -1/-1) in every block since the first Ravnica. On a whim, I struck up a conversation in the hopes of giving voice to the concern that counters are over-used.

I was delighted when Mark responded and continued to respond through the evening.

That's true, of course. It's quite useful to design something just to see if you can as an experiment, to learn from the process, because it gives you a better understanding of what is possible and what is worthwhile. However, it's a very poor strategy to create a product just to show that you can, because an experiment is helpful whether the results are positive or negative (that information is the real product of an experiment) while a product must serve its audience.

I wasn't trying to suggest that the basis for a future block be "no counters," but it's clear how anyone would read it that way. It's interesting to note that we both made assumptions here based on our environments. Coming from a world where all my designs start as experiments and I select products to build based off of the ones that turn out exceptionally well, I assume that challenges that grow oneself as a designer are always worthwhile. That's simply not the case for R&D, whose primary focus is on delivering a high-quality product on a regular basis with tight schedules every time. Mark assumed that I am not an experienced designer and wouldn't understand that design-because-you-can is bad design. I can hardly blame him since he hears from beginning designers every day, and the last he's seen of my work was when I botched the first finalist round of GDS2.

I misplayed here. This response wasn't terrible, but continues under the idea that avoiding counters might be the basis for a block like land-matters was for Zendikar, and that's neither a good idea nor the concept I was trying to express. I should have gotten to the point, that R&D is over-reliant on counters.

Yup. Mark is dead-on here. I used this argument having recently read his article explaining that the novel draft structure of Tarkir caused the team to start from a new angle and that gave them a fresh perspective that we can feel in the finished product. If the design team were to aim for "no counters" as an additional parameter in the design of some block with a proper heart, that would add a design restraint and force the team to find different solutions to serve that heart. But no-counters is definitely not something to build a block around. That was my miscommunication.

Game mechanics are one of a designer's tools, and both tapping and counters are game mechanics. If {Q} is a mechanic—and Shadowmoor's product page lists it as such—than {T} is too. That's not news to Mark; he's using the term here to refer to a feature unique to the block, that shapes its gameplay, and helps sell the set. This reveals an important perspective. R&D isn't thinking of +1/+1 counters as a 'mechanic' even though their audience does.

Counters that modify power and toughness are a game mechanic (sometimes with a keyword like Graft or Wither, and sometimes unnamed, like the vampires of Zendikar or the ordeals of Theros) whether they sell the set or not, and one that the pendulum hasn't swung away from for nine years.

Alpha had 47 cards that tap for an effect (38 if you don't count land). It had 7 cards that used counters, 3 of them +1/+1 counters. Wizards of the Coast has a patent on "tapping" cards, but not on +1/+1 counters. Counters aren't as vital to Magic as the tap symbol, but Mark happily clarifies that when people ask.

And finally I get to my point. The reason I challenged Mark to make a block without +1/+1 counters is that they aren't such good game design that they deserve to be featured in every block without question. Game designers must be hyper-aware not just of the cost of components packaged with their game, or that the game asks players to supply of their own accord, but with the logistical burden that their components impart on the players. Counters don't come in booster packs and new players don't know they need to supply additional components to play. Players are asked to stack counters on various cards in front of them, and to be careful not to misplace them as they move their cards around. Players are expected to know whether there are five counters on a given permanent or six, for all their permanents, at all times. I'm not saying counters are a huge burden, but they are a burden. There's a reason they don't use Cumulative Upkeep anymore.

To paraphrase Mark, we're not trying to make Magic simple, we're trying to make it less complex; Everything we can do to simplify it will only get it closer to merely-very-complex instead of absurdly-complex, as it was before NWO and further back.

Off the topic of counters, but relevant to designers-exchanging-perspectives; As a designer, I depend on blunt and truthful feedback and I find myself giving that kind of criticism sometimes too freely or even unsolicited, as in this case, which is why it's important to step back every once in a while and clarify that I'm not trying to tear an idea, a game, or a designer down, but to engage in useful conversation that can lead to better understanding, and eventually, better games. Mark is on board.

I'm not the only one aware of the cost counters impart on Magic. They really can add up. Here's the thing: Cards on the battlefield can add up too, but that's okay because Magic is a card game; not only is the game literally impossible without cards, but seeing a lot of them is expected as soon as players hear "card game." Counters enable a lot of cool things, and I would be much sadder if we never saw any counters again than I would be if they continued to be ubiquitous, but they are in no way a requirement to make Magic good, fun, interesting or weighty. They're useful to that end, but it is possible to get there otherwise. Alpha would not have been a flop without those 7 cards. Again, not a reason to excise them from a game, just banishing the assumption they're critical.

Having to compensate for the lack of counters is exactly the intent of my challenge. Looking for new ways to do things leads to positive growth. The audience has to appreciate that Magic needs to prioritize delivering a great product on time over exploration, but we've seen a lot of exploration happen through that process and I'm sure a little bit could be done in this realm given time.

I read "I'm at the mercy of mechanics not flavor" to mean that some of the best work Wizards has done recently was delivering on theme like Innistrad or Theros by tailoring the mechanics to flavor and not vice-versa. While we know that's not the only path, I agree it is the best. I never want to see the no-counters block, built around the absence of counters; and despite my challenge, I don't particularly want to see a block with a legitimate heart that also happens to have no counters at all; but I do want to see counters used more judiciously in general. I want to see R&D try to be conscious about their use of counters, to use them more sparingly, like on a few particularly cool rare cards, or a keyword that focuses on them. I want to see that R&D understands the cost of counters—because it appears from the last decade of sets and from this exchange that they don't—and weighs that when deciding how many to include in a set.

Again, Mark isn't blind. He knows what he's doing, and then some. He knows counters come with a cost, and it's clear that not using counters would limit what we can do, and how we can do it. My concern is that R&D has been weighing the former cost too high and the latter cost too low.

It's also not like WotC hasn't gotten better about counters. They moved away from weird counters like +1/+0, +0/+2 and +1/-1 counters a long time ago, promising to only ever use +1/+1 or -1/-1 counters to modify power and toughness. It's also been a great while since they've used multiple types of counters on creatures within a block. Both these moves show that they understand some of the problems with counters and will take steps to mitigate problems they're aware of. I'm confident that if we show that even a single counter type can bog the game down when it's used as freely as the tap symbol that they will improve on that too and swiftly.

The conversation dried up here. (It was Friday evening… I was more than impressed how late he did banter with us.) The biggest failure in my communication was in getting across my premise—that we use counters more than we should—which was disguised by the opening challenge, intended to get a dialogue started. I could have been much more clear about that, and I'm sure Mark would have been able to address my concerns more directly if not for the confusion I fostered. Hindsight is 20-20.

To clarify what I meant, it sounds from Mark's tweet that he takes it as given every set needs to track bits of progress that are smaller than a card. There are a lot of fun mechanics that wouldn't work without counters, or would be cumbersome if implemented without them, and I wouldn't omit or impair them by banning counters, but there are a great many more mechanics that don't need counters and there's nothing inherent to Magic that requires changes to permanents smaller than a card. Cards can be self-sufficient, particularly when you can modify them through auras, equipment, tricks and lords, just to name a few. It's okay for cards to matter enough sometimes that we don't have to clutter them with glass beads or pieces of ripped up lands.

There are a ton of mechanics that wouldn't be worth doing without counters and many of them are among my favorites. I want Magic to use counters to enable Hydras and Oozes, Evolve and Bloodthirst, Level Up and Proliferate, definitely. But I've designed and developed more than enough games to know that Magic uses counters a bit too much. While it is possible to make an entire block that uses no counters and is still one of the best ever, I don't care if they ever do. That's not important. But I'm certain that if they weighed the cost of counters higher that Magic could be even better than it is today, and that's saying a lot.


  1. This actually brings up something that has been on my mind recently. I'm a big Mark fan, and I think Mark (together with Richard and Aaron) is one of the top contributors to Making Magic (ha) what it is today.

    That said, I think the past couple years, Magic has finally started to suffer a bit from Mark's long stint as head designer, especially given his choice to also be the lead designer of every large set. Mark often says that he has to be careful to start somewhere new to avoid going down the same paths over and over, but inevitably we all have our biases, and try though we may, we inevitably bend to them. I think the recent blocks, since Scars of Mirrodin, have started to get a little too similar in structure (including the omnipresent +1/+1 counter theme).

    The last set I can think of without +1/+1 counters is the wonderful Rise of Eldrazi (led by Brian Tinsman). I love Mark sets, and I want to keep having Mark sets, but I think Magic would be a richer, better game if we had more sets from the likes of Tinsman.

    Unfortunately, WOTC's turnover lately has been, to say the very least, troubling, and I fear WOTC is not nurturing the kind of people who could lead large sets. I wish I had a better understanding of the institutional issues WOTC is facing (with the turnover, the website, gatherer, MTGO, ...), but WOTC, understandably, isn't acknowledging them. They simply can't get an RSS feed for their main page or gatherer comments because...?

    All of that somewhat gloomy stuff aside, I must say I haven't been as excited about a Magic set as I am about Khans of Tarkir since Scars of Mirrodin, which I hope bodes well for the future of the game. Big changes like the restructuring of standard suggest that people behind the scenes realize there is a problem and are taking steps to address it, but because WOTC works so far in the future, it may be a few years before we can completely appreciate them.

    1. WotC is a big company, and Magic R&D is only one division within it. Issues with MTGO and the website (which I agree are quite bad) aren't directly related to turnover in R&D. As far as I know, Design is doing great in retention; the only person who's actually left in recent years was Dan Emmons. Ken and MaGo have been there forever, Shawn and Ethan are still going strong, and Gavin seems like an excellent new addition.

      Also, Rise of the Eldrazi eschewed +1/+1 counters for level counters. More awesome, certainly, but certainly not less fiddly or confusing; they didn't solve the problems Jay mentions.

      More generally, however, I do agree that Theros and RTR blocks felt rather tame, and I am looking forward to Khans (especially Louie) shaking things up.

    2. It's perhaps worth mentioning that game design aficionados like you and I can hardly be unbiased when comparing a set like RoE to Theros. I can't blame R&D for prioritizing mass appeal over exciting the hardcorest of the hardcore. (See also: all of Time Spiral block.)

    3. I definitely agree that WOTC is a big company, and I think that a lot of these issues stem from the fact that WOTC is a small company that became a big company, and is still going through a lot of growing pains.

      Worth noting the turnover is also high in development and on the digital team, and that people on both of those teams are also often on design teams. I think Tinsman's departure is recent enough to be included. It is kind of shocking that I think Ken is the second eldest R&D member, and he hasn't been there 10 years.

    4. Total Aside about Time Spiral:

      There's a lot to love about Time Spiral block, and I have a lot of fondness for it, but I think it is basically an un-set. People always clamor for another Time Spiral like block, just like the un-sets, but I think if they made another one the same thing would happen. People would read over the spoilers and be like "oh this so awesome, they made a Kami with Undying! Oh look, an Ainok with Shadow and Infect!" and then they'd play it twice and wait for the next block to come out.

      I think WOTC should eventually revisit the idea of a nostalgia block, but they need to do it completely differently.

    5. What about Beyer, Gottlieb, Forsythe, Turian, Lauer, ...?

    6. Fair point, people who've been promoted out of R&D probably shouldn't count from an attrition point of view. Here's their status as I know it:

      Doug Beyer is still in creative but Brady Dommermuth left recently. I admit I've gotten them confused.

      Gottlieb is still on teams occasionally, but is "design manager" meaning, I think, that he primarily oversees the bureaucratic parts of design.

      Forsythe was promoted out of R&D after some time on the website and some time in development, and still does some every now and then (for example leading M15).

      Turian is no longer in R&D, but is now in Organized Play.

      Lauer is still going strong as head developer and started in Morningtide.

  2. There's a difference between essential game mechanics (e.g., change of state over time) and how those mechanics are implemented (+1/+1 counters). There are ways to represent change without counters, but I feel like they may never get explored if counters continue to be relied on as the default option. For starters, games like Race for the Galaxy use face-down cards from the deck as 'counters,' I don't see why Magic couldn't do the same sometimes:

    Card Bear 1G
    Creature - Bear [C]
    Whenever ~ attacks, exile the top card of your deck under it. ~ gets +1/+1 for each card exiled by it.

    Thought Vessel 2U
    Creature - Wizard [R]
    Whenever you discard a card, you may exile it under ~. ~ gets +1/+1 for each card exiled by it.
    When ~ dies, put a card exiled by it into your hand.

    1. This solution has the same up- and down-sides of counters *except* that it doesn't require players to supply additional material to play the game. I could imagine using this in a block that wants to remove cards from play anyhow.

      Making which cards are exiled in this way relevant is an important way to justify this solution. I like that aspect of Thought Vessel a great deal and can imagine a handful of other designs that would care about cards exiled under them.

    2. True, this is only meant to solve the problem I've run into a few times of "oops I don't have any counters... let me grab a piece of paper to tear up." The point is that counters aren't the only way within the game to represent stat changes.

  3. I think the main reason for omnipresent +1/+1 counters is that small rewards are not terribly plentiful in Magic. It's really hard to come up with effects that are worth less than a card but are still always desirable!

    Loot: requires a decision point.
    Mill: usually pointless.
    Life gain: slows down the game.
    Damage to creatures: too powerful.
    Damage to opponents: good.
    Temporary pump or ability-granting: decent, but situational.
    Discard: too powerful.
    Tap enemy creatures: situational.
    Exile from graveyard: usually pointless.
    Fight: too powerful.
    Add _ to your mana pool: situational.
    Token-making: okay, but fiddly.

    But small marginal benefits are important. Partly because we need carrots for active incidental reward mechanics such as Evolve and Heroic. But partly just for granularity's sake, because precise tweaking of effects requires quantities smaller than one card draw of value.

    Notice, also, that RoE used Eldrazi Spawn tokens as their fractional rewards on cards like Growth Spasm and Spawning Breath. We just can't get away from the small stuff!

    So here's my question: which item on the preceding list do you think should they should use more to compensate for using +1/+1 counters less? Or is there something genuinely new to substitute instead?

    1. It's a very good point that rewards smaller than cards are massively useful to the game, and +1/+1 counters are one of the best members of that club, despite being fiddly.

      I will add to your list temporary benefits like until-EOT P/T bonuses, keyword granting, untapping, can't-block, must-block, etc. There are tons of useful effects worth less than a card. See any charm that costs 1.

      Landfall's +2/+2 until EOT is a pretty reasonable substitute for a +1/+1 counter if you want a single, blanket answer.

  4. Time Spiral combined all the things I hate about Cube/all-reprint "greatest hits" sets with a nonsensical plot, hundreds of in-jokes I didn't get, and fugly card frames.

    Counters serve two main purposes: to track permanent changes to game objects (power and toughness being some of the most grokkable and often game relevant), and to represent a depleting resource. In terms of the former, I think Theros was a set that could have actually done fairly well under the "no counters" restriction. Bestow provides the "ongoing creature buffs" effect admirably. Scry doesn't care. Devotion doesn't care about counters, but promotes using less tokens (aside from a certain RTR card which I shall not name...), which reduces clutter and new player unfriendliness in another way. Heroic didn't NEED +1/+1 counter gainers (and in fact may have been more balanced without them - Heroic dude + Ordeal was a pretty stupid way to lose in x3 THS). Monstrosity's a tricky one, since DFC technology isn't exactly less burdensome, but printing the p/t changes on the card itself and just using a single counter to represent "this is monstrous" could have worked. Polukranos-style effects get worse, but it opens up design space to non-square p/t changes between normal and monstrous versions. (How much more tolerable would Hundred-Handed One have been as a 4/10 instead of a 6/8?) It also makes monsters stand out more if they're the only creatures in the block that put counters on themselves.

    1. The decision to make Theros' monsters with counters rather than the DFC tech that Innistrad used is really interesting. Both sets of creatures are monsters with exactly two states.

      The mothership made a bigger deal of the fear/anticipation of the monstrous transformation in Innistrad, and indeed the flavor there was always a human being corrupted into a monster, where in Theros it's just a monster becoming even more monstrous, but from an end-user perspective—apart from that flavor—there's really no difference in how those two mechanics will make the game feel.

      So, I see two reasons that Theros' monsters weren't DFC. One is that we "just did" DFC and want to save its return to be a little splashier (and to use it differently too). The other is that we wanted to use +1/+1 counters here for the interaction with ordeals (I was going to say "and the like" but there really weren't many other counters-matter effects in Theros). Another less satisfying answer is that the team settled on the monster mechanic too late in the process to set up everything needed to print and collate DFCs. The answer's usually some combination of factors.

      Not arguing that Theros should have used DFC, because as Jenesis rightly points out, that tool has significant costs as well. But I do agree that bestow reduced the overall need for permanent creature modifiers and the Theros could certainly have been done without [so many] counters. Again, not saying it should have, but it's an excellent example of how a set could work well without +1/+1 counters.

  5. For me, I want to see more diverse counters (not simultaneously). Level Up counters were great, and Shawn's GDS entry involved using counters in a unique way.

    1. Yeah, I think next time Wizards do a block without +1/+1 counters, it'll be too good an opportunity to use some more unusual counter-on-creatures to spend doing no-counters-at-all. I've seen some very interesting custom sets using custom counters instead of +1/+1s.

    2. Can this be done without getting parasitic?

    3. Charge counters on creatures is a design space with at least one set's potential, if not a block's.

  6. It's lovely you can chat to Mark like that. I'm really sorry you didn't really get through with what you wanted to say.

    Why do you think +1/+1 counters are over-used? I generally thought better use of +1/+1 counters was really useful: eg. monstrosity seems like a great example of how to use them as a marker for a permanent change that's less fiddly than double faced cards.

    When I play with beginners, they usually understand +1/+1 counters instantly. In fact, they'd probably understand the game better if temporary UEOT boosts used +1/+1 counters as well (so they don't have to remember, and don't confuse the two effects), and the same for X/X creatures. And everyone has coins to use.

    I'm interested if they're fiddly in some way I'm missing, since I haven't had much time to play this year?

    But maybe that's the source of disagreement -- Mark _didn't_ think they were overused, so didn't get what else you were getting at.

    I am interested to see alternatives, but to me, it does feel like "set without tap symbol" -- interesting to see what ideas it throws up (more level counters/charge counters/etc?) but not for its own sake?

    1. This is the only conversation I've had with Mark since GDS2. He has thousands of fans reaching out to him all the time, and we just got lucky to have caught his interest last week.

      The idea of +1/+1 counters is plenty simple, but try using Turn to Frog on a creature with those counters and watch how many new players guess correctly how that works, and how many squint at you while you win that combat against them.

      It's also common for new players to forget how large a creature is because their brain is already full just tracking the cards on the board.

      I will offer in defense of +1/+1 counters that they're easier to keep in mind than the +1/+1 static bonus from tribal lords, glorious anthems, and the like, because counters have a physical representation on the board, which acts as a visual reminder of their effect.

      The act of adding and removing bits smaller than a card is inherently fiddly, in both a physical sense and mentally. Imagine trying to play chess in your head… with counters.

  7. I think you somewhat overstate things when you say "R&D isn't thinking of +1/+1 counters as a 'mechanic' even though their audience does." I personally /don't/. I think of graft or evolve or modular as mechanics, heroic and outlast and so on, plus unnamed mechanics like the Pentavus/Tetravus/Thopter Squadron mechanic. POPOCs are... I mean, I guess in a sense they obviously are a mechanic, but I really don't think of them that way, because they're a natural component part of others. They're like "the type line". In a sense it's a mechanic, but it's more normal to think of Slivers or Allies being a mechanic, Zendikons and Celestial Colonnade, War Falcon and Ageless Sentinels, as having mechanics. The type line is an underpinning concept that allows all those different mechanics to work; POPOCs are in that category to me.

    1. We use the term mechanic in Magic usually to refer to keywords and ability words and that's a useful concept when talking about a set. In game design, every functional part of a game is a mechanic, and that's a useful concept when discussing the bigger picture of Magic design.

      Some players and designers think of +1/+1 counters only as the latter, and the abilities that use them as the former. My argument is that they are both, that there are players who see +1/+1 counters in a similar light as keywords or tribal effects, and that designers should be cognizant of that perception whether they agree or not.

  8. You missed out the most important person in that conversation.

    1. I appreciate your support, Bass.

    2. You know the above comment wasn't me being serious, right? All I did was make jokes about how I'm talking to MaRo and made it stalker-y. :)

    3. That's the absurdist support that I appreciate.

  9. A natural place to not have +1/+1 counters is a set with double faced cards, because the two play so poorly together, and both achieve the same goal (reflecting improvement in a creature).

  10. So this conversation kind of inspired me to write a blog post:

    Common Creature Counters

  11. I love this topic and my mind goes a thousand different directions in thinking about it. I remember being irritated when Scourge of Skola Vale was previewed. It's a 0/0 that enters the battlefield with two +1/+1 counters on it. There's a case to be made that it make it easier to tell what it's p/t is at all times, but all I could think of was how annoying it'll be to cast it, pull counters out of my box and put them on it, only to have to put them back in the box when removal kills it the next turn. All that extra work before I ever have a chance to use its ability.

    Beyond that anecdote, I think the best thing I can contribute to this discussion is how the escalation in +1/+1 counters over all these years had gone way beyond incremental progress. Every set in Theros Block and RTR block had a mechanic that put +1/+1 counters on creatures, and because that design existed, both blocks have cards that force you to care about +1/+ counters. Khans has a ton of these too. Consider all these designs that know ask you to build around +1/+1 counters for Limited or even constructed:

    Feat of Resistance
    Hardened Scales

    Solidarity of Heroes
    Chronicler of Heroes

    Bred for the Hunt
    Korozda Gorgon
    Mutant's Prey
    Crowned Ceratok
    Ooze Flux
    Sapphire Drake

    Corpsejack Menace
    Death's Presence

    I really don't think WotC considers all the extra stuff they want us to cart around, and space we have to play on at our local card shop for FNM. It's actually extremely annoying to play a deck with a major counter component, or more importantly to play against a deck with a counter component. Especially when your opponent relies on you to provide the counters. (This is also true of tokens.) You may think, hey that dude should take care of their own tokens, but in the real world it's not some random guy, it's Rich. And Rich is nice, but he uses face down cards as tokens and counters! And if you don't give him a better counter option, your game is going to be indecipherable.

    My point is that it's annoying to play with +1/+1 counters, and WotC using them heavily in ever set's design is wearing on me.

    1. There was one point during a KTK prerelease I played in where my opponent (playing without sleeves) grabbed a face-down card from his sideboard to use as a token. In a set with morph no less! Seriously, not enough people take advantage of the five-six free tokens/counters you get with every sealed deck.

    2. I had someone do that during the prerelease too! It's maddening.